Rabbit, the common name of several species of the hare family, especially the lepus cuniculus of Europe and the L. sylvaticus of North America; the family and generic characters have been given under Hare. The European rabbit or cony (L. cuniculus, Linn.), the lapin of the French, is about 16 1/2 in. long, with the tail 3 in. additional, and the ears also 3 in.; the tarsus shorter than in the hare; the general color gray brown, white below, the back of the neck rufous; tail white below, blackish above, but pencilled with dirty white; ears not tipped with black; compared with that of the hare, the skull has the muzzle, inter-orbital space, and incisive openings narrower; the mammae are five pairs, two pectoral and three ventral. In the wild state the rabbit inhabits Europe, except the more northern portions, and N. Africa; it is thought to be originally from Spain, but, being hardy, has been carried to most parts of the world; it is easily distinguished from the hare by its smaller size, grayish color, and short feet and ears; it also differs from the hares in its burrowing habits.
Unable to escape from its enemies by speed, it seeks safety in deep holes dug in dry sandy places, living in society in what are called warrens, with an ample supply of food, in places suitable for burrows, such as sandy heaths covered by a prickly furze. Remaining concealed by day, they come out at twilight in search of food, and often do considerable mischief by digging up the newly sprouted corn and gnawing the bark from young trees; these warrens are often of large extent, and a source of great profit from the flesh and skins of the animals, which are caught in snares and traps, dug or drowned out, and hunted by dogs and ferrets. They begin to breed at the age of six months, have several litters in a year and five to eight at a time; the period of gestation is about three weeks, but, as the uterus is double, there may be two distinct litters at an interval of a few days; the young are born blind and naked, in a nest lined with the mother's soft fur; they are said to live eight or nine years. They seem to have social laws, the same burrow being transmitted from parent to children, and enlarged as the family increases.
Rabbits and hares appear to be natural enemies; they are not found in the same localities, and when they meet they generally engage in combat; when brought up together they do not produce a fertile offspring inter se, and hybrids probably never occur between them in the natural state. It has been estimated that in four years a single pair of rabbits would, if unmolested, become the progenitors of more than 1,250,000; but this increase is checked by the persecution of man and of carnivorous beasts and birds. Their ravages are more than counterbalanced by their flesh, which forms a nutritious and easily digested food, and by their skins, which are used in making hats and are dyed to imitate more expensive furs. The name rabbit or cony is erroneously applied in the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures to the shaphan. (See Hyrax.) Rabbits are easily domesticated, and in this state vary greatly in colors, size, and character of fur; black, white, and gray are the prevailing colors; in the silver-gray variety the hairs are white and black; the Angora rabbit is noted for the length and softness of its white fur; in the lop-eared varieties the size is three or four times that of the wild animal, and the ears are more or less bent downward from the base.
When tame they do not pair like those in a wild state, and lose more or less the instinct of burrowing; their flesh is also inferior in flavor, though more delicate and digestible; the tame males not unfrequently kill the young. - The American gray rabbit (L. sylvaticus, Bach.) is about 16 1/2 in. to the root of the tail, and 26 1/2 in. to the end of the outstretched legs, the tail to the end of the hairs 2 3/4 in.; fur and pads of the feet full and soft; on the back light yellowish brown, lined with black, grayer on the sides; on the rump mixed ash, gray, and black, pure white below; upper surface of tail like the back, below pure cottony white; posterior edge of ears whitish, edges of the dorsal surface toward the tip black, the rest ashy brown; fur lead-colored at the base. This is among the largest of the short-eared leporidoe of America, being largest in the west and smallest and coarsest-haired in the south; it is found almost throughout the United States, from the southern parts of New Hampshire to Florida, and west to the upper Missouri, being most abundant in sandy regions covered with pines.
It also frequents woods and thickets, concealing itself in its form, in thick bushes, or in holes in trees or under stones by day, coming out at night to feed; in clover and corn fields, vegetable gardens, and nurseries of young trees, it does much mischief. It does not dig burrows like the European rabbit, and comes rather in the class of hares; when pursued it runs with great swiftness and with few doublings to its hole in a tree or rock; though it will breed in enclosed warrens, it does not become tame, and has not been domesticated. It is very prolific, or else it would be exterminated by its numerous enemies; it often runs into the hole of the woodchuck, skunk, fox, or weasel, in the last three cases often falling a victim to the inhabitant of the burrow; it is hunted by dogs, shot from its form, and caught in snares and traps; its flesh is much esteemed. It somewhat resembles the European rabbit in its gray color, but it does not change its colors like the latter, and is smaller and more slender. Hybrids are sometimes produced between this species and the domesticated European rabbit which has escaped from confinement into the woods. The sage rabbit (L. artemisia, Bach.), from the west and the plains of Mexico and Texas, cannot be satisfactorily distinguished from the last species.
The jackass rabbit or Texan hare (L. callotis, Wagl.) is so named from its very long ears, measuring about 5 in., though the animal is rather smaller than the European hare; it is yellowish gray above, waved irregularly with black, upper part of tail black, sides gray, and dull whitish below; nape sooty black; it is found in Mexico, Texas, and Oregon, and on the plains. The long and slender legs indicate rapid locomotion and a capacity for making long leaps; it is a solitary and not very common species, and has not been found in California.
European Rabbit or Cony (Lepus cuniculus).
American Gray Rabbit (Lepus sylvaticus).